‘Seeing somebody need you, seeing somebody in pain, is not necessarily traumatizing: not being able to help them is a moral injury that is traumatizing. So I also wanted to challenge ideas of what hurts.’
Most of us run away from disaster. Similarly, we try to avoid painful emotions.
For Professor Lucy Easthope, expert and adviser on emergency planning and disaster recovery, heading towards the most traumatic disaster scenes as others flee in the opposite direction is par for the course, as is leaning into the rawest human emotions of grief, horror and anger.
How do you do this every day and stay not only sane but cheerful? And how do you write about it in a way that readers can bear?
In this truly extraordinary conversation, we explore courage, clarity, how writing helps both ourselves and others, and why books should be available on prescription.
If you only listen to one podcast this week, make it this one.
Lucy’s site: http://whatevernext.info/
Lucy on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LucyGoBag
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alison-jones-9b09893/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2023: http://proposalchallenge.com/
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Power Up Your Writing Workshop, 23 February: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-473591162917
Alison Jones: I am here today with Professor Lucy Easthope, who is the UK’s leading authority on recovering from disaster. She’s been an advisor on nearly every major disaster of the past two decades, including the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, 9/11, the 7/7 bombings, the Salisbury Poisonings, Grenfell, and, it says here, most recently has been advising the Prime Minister’s office on the Covid 19 pandemic.
I mean, overtaken by current events than this, aren’t you? I’ve just been listening to you on Woman’s Hour talking about the ambulance strike, and I’m sure there’s been lots of disasters in between that. But anyway she’s a Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at the University of Durham and Fellow in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics, which is a job title and a half, at the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath.
And she’s the author of When the Dust Settles: Stories of love, loss and hope from an expert in disaster. So first of all, welcome Lucy, it’s great to have you here.
Lucy Easthope: Thank you very much for having me.
Alison Jones: It is quite the bio, isn’t it?
Lucy Easthope: It is, and there’s so many areas you can go wrong with it as well. I’m often introduced as a Professor of Mass Fertilities which is something very different.
So yes, it’s a biography. It gets shortened and it gets mocked as well.
Alison Jones: It’s brilliant. And well, you’re here for lots of reasons. I do want to talk about the book, but I think it’s just worth a nod too, the fact that we actually met, you and I, a couple of weeks ago from when we’re speaking in December, at the Harpers Bazaar event in London, Women’s Leadership event, and I was chairing a panel there on resilience and you were one of the speakers and I was just absolutely fascinated by particularly your take on resilience at the different levels, at the sort of societal level, at the organizational level, at the individual level and I thought we could maybe explore that in little bit more time today. That would be amazing.
But let’s start with When the Dust Settles because in a sense, you bring everything together there, don’t you? What’s the sort of impulse behind that book?
Lucy Easthope: Yes, that’s a great way of describing it and there’s a huge relief actually knowing it exists because it does very much bring everything together. I don’t know that I always made a huge cogent sense before it existed. So you get me, you get to know me. It’s a very personal memoir. And that took on a greater importance because what I realized people were interested in was also why and who is interested in risk like this.
And I think sometimes, you know, you mentioned, I’ve just sort of jumped over here from a radio interview. I think when people have read the book there’s actually a huge amount of compassion towards me from people. You know, the bio itself, people will be like, well, yes, I know you’re those things, but actually I’ve got to know a little bit about Lucy, the person.
And that was a real gift that, you know, when Hodder and Stoughton took on the book, they were like, well, we want Lucy in there too. And obviously there’s disaster science texts and some weaving of personal experience, usually being involved in some way with disaster response, but the idea of being so personal was actually really appealing. It should be daunting, I think.
And you know, there’s a huge indulgence in being commissioned for what is essentially a memoir. And then there was this need to get down on paper once and for all, all of this schooling, not learning, but brutal schooling about what disasters do to people and to communities.
And I just feel incredibly… the sense of peace that it exists in the world now was profound. So it was that and there’s also a process, isn’t there, editorially, where you are made to organize yourself and made to organize your memoir. And I’m often described by colleagues as having a head full of bees, there’s lots of stuff going on in this head.
And so the process of organizing it into chronology and into chapters has been hugely liberating actually.
Alison Jones: Liberating and empowering as well, isn’t it? Because telling your own story is an amazingly powerful act. It makes sense of stuff that perhaps you hadn’t quite seen before. You reveal patterns that have been there, but you’ve never noticed.
Lucy Easthope: Yes, absolutely. And I think I mentioned at the event we met, one thing I’m very receptive to is in debriefing and in post-disaster support, you often meet with very good psychologists and, sort of cognitive behavioral tricks and techniques and things. And one of the things that had always appealed to me is does that link to that?
And I think again, the book was able to explain, you know, angry child at the start, very, very activated by friends’ experiences of the Hillsborough disaster. You know, that wasn’t so clearly articulated always, you know, when people would ask me why or what, I’d kind of stumble over the reasoning in my twenties and to be able to really make those connections has again really helped me as a person.
And I do a lot more work with children now after disaster. And I think that makes a lot more sense and people will explain to me, you know, we are seeing some really angry 11 year olds, or the anger’s getting worse, not better as time goes on. And there’s an empathy that I feel there.
I remember school friends who were perhaps nine or 10 at the game who were absolutely incensed with rage at 15, 16, so that the rage would get worse makes a lot of sense. And so I think the sense making has helped me hugely. And one of the things that the publicist and for things like the audio book they laughed at, is that I know the book so intimately and of course many authors write lots and lots of books. And so, I’ve noticed, you know at book festivals, they’ll go oh, which one did I talk about that? But with me, I’m like, oh, you mean page 72, paragraph four. I know which chapters is that bit of heart spilling and which chapter is that, so I’m just very grateful for the chance to put it all together really as a scrapbook of life.
Alison Jones: And is there a little bit of: I’m also very grateful that I never have to write it again. There’s a little bit of that too.
Lucy Easthope: Yes, yes, I mean, I had very good experiences writing the book. I think there was an indulgence at the start where you sort of could imagine the muse had struck and you could sort of spend time in a coffee shop, sculpting it out, and then eventually, you know, you realize there are actual commercial deadlines to some of this process and you’re going to need to get up really early and write stuff.
And in fact, one of the chapters that means the most to me is actually right in the middle of the book, the flood chapter on just how awful and chronic and horrible flooding disasters are. And I was really grateful and proud to get that one in there because there was this slight pressure I think that the events that I would talk about would be very big no-notice events and to be able to tell the story of what can feel quite mundane flooding, and the bulk of that chapter was actually written through one night. I just sat and wrote, so there’s quite a kind of fevered febrile reflection. And that actually had the fewest edits.
So there’s different stories behind the writing of different bits. The arrival was pieced together from some notes. That’s the opening chapter where I’m writing about arriving at a kind of composite scene. And the arrival chapter was written up from notes that I’d written just to empty my head after a couple of incidents. So actually before the book was ever even commissioned. So different chapters have got sort of different writing backstories really.
Alison Jones: And it’s wonderful for you as the author, isn’t it? When you read back and you remember, you remember where you were, you remember how you felt, you remember that tea going cold, you know, all those sort of little things about when you were actually writing that piece. I love that.
You talk about as well that the composite…
I think let’s do a little bit more background for people who haven’t read the book. You very much should read the book, by the way, is extraordinarily well written. But the piece about arriving and basically you are heading towards disaster while everybody else is running in the opposite direction, and there is something perverse and just a little bit ballsy and interesting about that impulse.
Just for people who haven’t read the book, just explain a little bit more where that came from. What’s beneath it?
Lucy Easthope: I think, you know, one of the things about the book is being able to sort of explain that I see risk in perhaps a slightly different way. You know, I’m not, it would be completely remiss of me to say I’m not afraid. Of course I’m afraid, and, you know, once you have children, you’re even more afraid of other things.
But what I’d started to learn was that there were roles in response that somebody needed to do. So, particularly my work in the early stages of a response focuses around the care of the deceased and the care of the personal effects. And it’s very time critical. And if you don’t get there early on, responders who perhaps haven’t seen this before, will make decisions that are fundamentally going to change how the families experience this disaster.
So you know, there was almost an agitation in me in my twenties and thirties when I was called, and I’d have various roles, so I’d do a lot of pre-work with things like the Home Office and the coroners. And then I would get called to go to the incident. And you found yourself making decisions, do I go? And sometimes there was practical decisions.
So when I was pregnant, which, for a lot of the book I am pregnant, I was on Clexane so that affected my ability to travel. I remember being asked to go to the Middle East and I couldn’t always go because there is certain restrictions on what I could travel with and all these kind of things. But also, you get this split second decision: am I the right person to go to the scene? And actually, even this week I’ve been activated for an event that’s happening, but I’m right here in my house because I would only get in the way, but I can do stuff by phone and in conference calls. One of the things about online working is it’s much easier now to dial people in than make people go to the event.
So you have these decisions to make about where your role is going to be, and I think that there’s nothing to differentiate me. I think one of the things that people have tried to explore with the book is, you know, are you a bit mad? Are you a bit, you know, is it an adrenaline thing? All of these kind of things. It’s just sometimes that you are asked to go to do something and you do it. It’s almost sort of like a diligence really. And I think the book makes clear why those decisions are important in a very time-critical way.
Alison Jones: And that point about: somebody’s got to do this, and most of us sort of look around and go, somebody, could somebody sort this out, please? And you’re like, well, you know, that’s me then. And you step up to it.
What really is interesting as well is the way that you lean into the humanness of it.
So you’ve got this sort of systemic approach to, as you say, assessing risk. There are various different types of disaster. There’s the stuff that just happens and then there’s the stuff that you can see happening, like the ambulance strikes and the sort of, you know, chronic underfunding of health service and all that kind of stuff.
But whatever it is, there’s sort of the, at one point you’ve got to think very rationally about what’s going on here, the decisions that needs to be made. And on the other point you have got to somehow retain the ability to empathize, to see the humanness in this situation.
And just tell us a little bit more about what’s going on in your head when you’re managing that.
Lucy Easthope: Yes, I mean there’s different ways that… I read different people’s memoirs and there’s different ways that I think people have approached it over the years. I did a video call earlier this week and somebody said, you are always just you, even in the incident. Now there is a caveat to that, which is that you can’t carry, you know, I’m quite smiley, I’ll laugh at myself as quite a self deprecating, and we talked about how, and I think this was sort of also part of the event where you and I met, sometimes you have to control that aspect of you. You know, you can’t just be you. It isn’t right that you’re just wailing or weeping. It isn’t right that you’re just kind of hugging everybody. Sometimes you have to kind of control the humanity of it within yourself or the normal tips, you know, tips and tricks that you would use with family members who were perhaps in distress, you might reach out and touch them, you know, you can’t necessarily do that. So I think one of the things about the humanity of it is taking your lead from the families and the bereaved, taking your lead from the responders.
I think there’s an inherent assumption, which I really wanted to challenge in the writing, that this sort of work should traumatize you, you know, and this has been a big thing I think sometimes, about the sort of events and questions that I’m asked at events is sort of, well, you must be full of trauma, how do you deal with it?
And the event does not need to traumatize. There’s a huge privilege in being allowed to do this sort of work. And what traumatizes people often is the inability to do that sort of work or a lack of resource. And that was, you know, kind of what I’ve been talking about in the media in recent days about the ambulance strikes, the seeing somebody need you, seeing somebody in pain, is not necessarily traumatizing: not being able to help them is a moral injury that is traumatizing. So for me, I also wanted to challenge ideas of what hurts.
Alison Jones: That is so fascinating, because what you’ve done in a sense is channel that sense of outrage, the natural response to trauma as you say, and also that anger from your experience as child in Liverpool with the Hillsborough disaster going on, and somehow you’ve brought in the expertise and the resources that you need to be able to actually make a difference in the world, which I find really hopeful, actually.
It’s a great way of thinking about how you meet, which effectively is resilience, isn’t it? It’s how you meet adverse situations, not by making the adverse situation go away, but by increasing your capacity, your resources to deal with it. And I’m guessing that that’s resources at several different levels.
It’s emotional resource, it’s mental resource, it’s knowledge. And it’s also the equipment, the things that you can bring to it, the skills may be, but also the kind of physical things that you bring to it. But you can’t always feel fully resourced in those situations. So how do you go about managing that gap in your resourcefulness at a time when you really, really need it?
Lucy Easthope: I think, I mean, and that sort of resourcefulness is on so many different levels sometimes it’s very, very personal. And you know, one of the themes about the book is me self-analyzing times where it would be remiss of me to imply every morning I kind of get up and go, yay, I’ve got the skills.
Alison Jones: I am fully resourced…
Lucy Easthope: I’m ready to go and I’m fully resourced. You know, resource and resilience are both incredibly linked to privilege, you know? And sometimes I’ve done various events in my hometown of Birkenhead and Merseyside. And, you know, people have said, do you think this is a Merseyside thing? You know, get your coat on, get back out there. You know, you can do this.
I sort of sat back the other day, I was at afternoon tea with my grandma, who’s 94, and my auntie and my mum and my eldest daughter. And there’s kind of just like, come on, you can do it, kind of like pouring out of them.
And I thought, you know, there’s definitely this somewhere on a DNA helix, but also it’s incredibly linked to privilege. I think that’s a really important thing, it’s all very well to say, you know, kind of bounce straight back up, but you need a trampoline, you need that something to bounce you back from.
And so, you know, resources are really important in that. And that leads you to this broader message of what’s missing. And in the pandemic, it was very clear that we weren’t going to be able to deliver the response that we’d planned and prepared for, you know, things were missing. The most obvious at the start was the pandemic stockpile, which wasn’t there anymore.
So one of the things that I pivoted to do was to look three years ahead and think, okay, but the most important thing to me now is that there are some lantern bearers left. You know, some people will still be there to guide the way in 2025. So the most important thing now is for me to keep strong, to keep the clan strong, and to build the resilience on a very core kind of almost mental health level within my colleagues in emergency planning. And so that was where I, you know, I was doing disaster response for the pandemic, but I kept a bit of energy with a very long view for sort of right now, which is what we are doing.
And often I think there’s no point me putting out great big plans and asking the sort of unknown biological robots to fulfill them. Often I’m saying to colleagues, I’m quite personal sometimes, you know, I’m asking about health, I’m asking about finances. I’m asking if they’re okay and then the double tap question of: but are you really okay?
There’s no point in me expecting them to pick other people up unless I’ve checked in on whether they’re okay.
Alison Jones: I love that double tap question. No, but really, how are you? Yes.
Lucy Easthope: And it gets the result, you know, it really does get the result.
Alison Jones: Because the first one’s just politeness, isn’t it? Nobody wants a response if they’re just doing it for politeness.
Lucy Easthope: Yes, and I mean, I think it is quite confronting for British people. My American colleagues have been doing it to me for years, but still the older generation of Britains are like, what are you doing? Why are you asking it again? This is clearly just a courtesy question. Nobody ever expects an answer, but we’ll learn. We’ll get there.
Alison Jones: Talking about, just carrying on the idea of how you resource yourself. Let’s talk about writing because what I’ve heard already is that you wrote almost instinctively just to clear your head, to sort stuff out. Presumably it’s just process stuff from the day job and then you wrote really purposefully you know, at first quite joyfully and, Ooh, I’m in a cafe and isn’t this fun? And then, oh crap, I’ve got a deadline, you know.
So we’ve already had quite a life cycle of writing there, but what did you notice about it? What really maybe surprised you about writing the book?
Lucy Easthope: I’m transformed. I always struggled with writing actually, and I still do, and there’s a massive, there’s been a massive leap for me in understanding, but also understanding both the publishing of books and also the publishing of say, opinion pieces and perspectives. So I’ve started to do a few more magazine pieces, which has really stretched me.
I enjoy and always have enjoyed verbalizing and kind of narrating my thoughts and I used to make a fundamental mistake of revising for an exam by kind of speaking the answers out loud in my bedroom and thinking that that was revising. But actually there’s something, I mean, my editors laugh about it because it’s absolutely true. There’s something that happens between mouth and fingers where you know, I kind of curdle it somewhere around the elbow. And they go, no, no, whatever you just said in your mouth there, put it on paper. So there was a real discipline and that involved slowing myself down.
It involved… I was terrible and I was the same in relationships actually, my husband pointed out that I would miss the first paragraph verbally. I’d go straight in to what the civil contingencies framework in the UK was without actually kind of setting any scene. I was rubbish at at scene setting.
So I would do a lot of work on what I think now are actually really really clear crafted bits. If you look at the book, the beginning and end of each chapter, when you read those know there is actual Lucy blood behind those because…
Alison Jones: You’re so right. Let me just pick up that because that first bit, that the first bit and the end bit, you’re kind of what you have to do is kind of tuck the reader’s arm into yours and take them into what you really want to say to them. But if you don’t do that, you haven’t got them with you.
Lucy Easthope: Yes.
Alison Jones: So important.
Lucy Easthope: And I was really remiss when I started like, no, just get there quicker. Google the first bit. So it’s a real discipline and also that helped me develop the sense of the reader, like I love the book, but one of the things I’ve realized, particularly if I see somebody bending the spine or even worse drawing on it, I’ve had to realize that it’s gone out into the world. I can’t hold onto it. I can’t, certainly can’t dictate how you look after the cover. So one of the things about visualizing and picturing the reader was this is their book. They have to make sense of this. They have to understand this. This has to be well organized. This has to be edited, you know wonderful Baroness Dame Sue Black had said to me, you know, the only person who ever misses the words that aren’t there are you, you know, the reader doesn’t know they’re not there, so kind of listen to your editor. And so I think by sort of a third of the way through, I’d been really, really sort of schooled by my editors about really thinking about what the reader would want from this experience.
And as you say, the guiding elbow, you know, me linked into their elbow is absolutely the analogy. And that was a hugely important discipline for me, I think, and it’s changed how I write full stop. It’s ruined me for academic writing, which is supposed to be impenetrable and missing the first paragraph of explanation.
But it’s transformed me I think.
Alison Jones: That’s such an interesting point because I work with so many academics who find it punishingly hard to write a sentence that an actual human being would say and it’s a great, such a useful skill. What’s interesting though is that when they go back to academia and they keep more of that accessible sort of conversational tone, turns out academics are human too. Who knew? And they actually really like it as well. So, hopefully, you know, one piece of paper at a time we might shift that.
Lucy Easthope: I live in hope. I mean, I had a brutal review for one academic paper that said that the reviewer didn’t like it, but that credit would be given as English was clearly not the first language of the writer. So you know, let’s just say I struggle with both genres really, but I’ve really grown I think, and I did, you know, as I say in my acknowledgements, I did Cathy Rentzenbrink’s course and was a huge fan of all of her writing.
And I think that was the other thing that the process has taught me that this is both a set of skills and a profession and you can’t, you know, lots of people sort of wake up, ‘I’m a writer!’ And in a way, the internet has kind of encouraged that idea, but there’s no rules, anything goes, but there are things that can help, I think, with helping the reader get the most from the book.
And even now talking to other authors at events, I can see that a lot of people say, well I wrote the book for me, for themselves. And I didn’t, I don’t think, I did write the book to be read.
Alison Jones: Of course Cathy has that wonderful split, doesn’t she? A big, huge fan of Cathy Rentzenbrink here as well. She’s got that, you know, before reader and after reader splits. It’s particularly for writing your own life stuff. So there is a point at which you have to put the reader out your head and just write to uncover the stuff.
And then there’s the point when you kind of let the reader back in the room and then you do the framing stuff and you take them through and you explain what needs to be done and you think what this is going to mean for them. So yes, you’ve obviously studied well.
Lucy Easthope: I did. I found that aspect, because that was very strong in her memoir training, very humbling actually, very humbling. Emergency planning and emergency management has a bit of a thing about, a bit like courts and the law. It shuts the public out. And so we use a lot of acronyms and a lot of you know, the J R L O will meet you at the T C G for an RVP. It shuts people out.
And it reminded me about letting people back in, in a very different way. And also actually, and people were quite overt on their commentary that I was relentless on social media and probably still am, whether I will be at the time this goes out, we’ll see. But I actually found Twitter very useful for that as well because my early tweets were written as an emergency planner.
The book wasn’t out and I was sort of experimenting and people were like, what earth are you saying?
Alison Jones: What does that even mean?
Lucy Easthope: A tweet needs to be read and understood. And even the emergency planners were a bit confused sometimes. After the inquest into the July the seventh bombings in 2005, the inquest was held in 2011, Lady Justice Hallett roundly castigated our field for not being able to communicate and for teaching in this very surreal lexicon that nobody understood.
So it was a discipline for me to break out of that and sort of push that down.
Alison Jones: It does take real courage, I think, because you can hide behind acronyms and obfuscation can’t you? And it keeps it, as you say, within the people who know what you’re talking about and you’re not therefore as accountable to the public who might have a very different set of priorities. So it does take courage, I think, to write it in a way that can be understood and be ready to answer the challenges and the comments that come back from that.
If somebody’s at the start of the journey, Lucy, if they are wanting to write a book, but they haven’t yet started, I guess I’m asking what do you wish you’d known before you started? What’s your best tip for them?
Lucy Easthope: Oh, that’s a brilliant question. I think there’s a few things that really helped me. I don’t know, I think my mum would’ve appreciated it if I had had a bit more inhibition, but I just decided I had no inhibition. So depending on the sort of book you want to write, decide how far you are going to go, particularly it’s a memoir, and also perhaps who else’s stories you are revealing.
Disaster Husband did sign a legal disclaimer at the end of the process. So one of the things is kind of what, you know, particularly if it is non-fiction, it is about you, what am I comfortable talking about? And it turned out I was comfortable going to all sorts of places.
I think the other thing is are you happy for this to be read, you know, and how, a big question for me, and actually this was something I was very good at thinking about before, because I taught university classes on it for post-grad professionals.
So things like a Chief of Fire who decided they wanted to do a master’s degree would come on my courses. And what they weren’t expecting was any kind of critique. You know, they wanted when you gave them their essay back, they wanted you to say, ‘well, this is the best essay in the world. I’m reconsidering my own career choices here because there’s nothing I don’t love about it.’
And so one of the things I would do in very early kind of study skills was how will you absorb critique? And I think even now, I see colleagues who have started to write, there’s a lot of desire in the academic community to transition to produce these more commercially, widely available books. And the first question that I pose to them is, how are you with critique?
Because many of my colleagues, we mentioned the academic feedback, as soon as they get a negative review, that paper goes in a drawer, they’ll never submit it anywhere else, and you have to be able for somebody to go, come back and, oh, the paragraph’s gone, we just didn’t like that at. That just wasn’t… and there are many, many writers I just think would not be able to do that. So that’s a big question for yourself.
Who do you envisage your reader? And also I think this, you know, I mean, I completely agree with a lot of the social media discussion that just write, just write for you. It doesn’t have to have a purpose, just write, just enjoy it. It’s cathartic.
I love that we’re a society now where things like journaling is discussed a lot more. At the event you and I met at, people were talking about how important journaling is to their mental health. Write for you. I completely get that, but if you are looking to get that out there, I think there are probably a few more questions to ask of yourself.
But what I love this year, in this last couple of years has been just amazing for really brave, clearly authored by the person memoirs. You know, this is not a pity memoir. Everything from sort of Midnight Chicken, Rob Delaney’s one A Heart That Works, everything on just how stuff hurts, how stuff smells, I just love the honesty in writing.
And that’s very much a non-fiction thing, but for fiction, I just think get it down on paper.
Alison Jones: Yes, oh, that’s a different story altogether, isn’t it? Yes, I think you are much more writing sort of from yourself, whereas for non-fiction, I think you always have to have the reader front and center. Yes, which leads us beautifully of course, onto the next question, which is, you’re not allowed to recommend When the Dust Settles. Sorry, but I will do that for you and don’t worry, it’s very, very good.
But what book would you recommend that people listening should read? I usually say a business book doesn’t have to be a business book.
Lucy Easthope: Yes. So the one that I’ve just put down and I was just in absolute floods of tears and laughing and joy and horror and distress, was Rob Delaney’s, A Heart That Works, on the loss of his son, Henry. And again, it’s just the way it’s come out of his hands into the typewriter, and it’s just everything that you needed to be said about his individual loss.
And I’m loving work that tells the realities of grief and bereavement and distress as it is, the messiness, he talks about his little boy’s death and his little boy’s body. And I think that and what is, you know, you mentioned that I’m a fellow in the Centre for Death and Society.
We’ve sequestered these things for so long. And one of the very freeing thoughts actually this year came from the very incredible and brave war correspondent Lyse Doucet, who was a literary festival that I was at. And she was talking about how much we learned, not from nonfiction, but from fiction and so from stories as well of grief and bereavement.
And although it isn’t a story, of course, it is a very, very personal, difficult memoir, it has the, I think similar to When the Dust Settles, it has the atmosphere of a story. And I think one of the things that I’ve learned from working in death and bereavement is families, particularly British families, tie themselves up in knots about what’s okay to feel.
And often it’s the funeral directors or some of the hospital staff that they’ll ask these really difficult questions that they see are difficult and we see are normal. You know, and I think since When the Dust Settles has come out, people have sought me out in situations where perhaps their loved one is having a postmortem or their loved one has been referred to the coroner or there’s a difficult question. A friend rang me up about the funeral director during the pandemic wasn’t allowing them to supply clothes for their loved ones to be dressed in. And they said, well, is this normal? And I said, no, those rules have changed. And I spoke to the funeral director for them.
And I just think it’s the sort of book that, and The Reluctant Carer, and This is Not a Pity Memoir, they should all be on prescription at the moment, you know, you should go and pick up your kind of heart pills and your digestion pills and six or seven books. That would be a whole other question of NHS funding.
But you should just be able to get these books and sit with them, you know, Manual for Heartache, all of those things, and just be told it’s okay to feel these things, to go to those dark places in your mind, which are actually perfectly normal places. You know, my wonderful, my dear wonderful friend, I call him JT Death Reference Desk, John Troy, who’s a professor in death studies, lost both his mum and his dad very recently. And he’s tweeted throughout that loss, and he’s tweeted, you know, tweeted really intimate detail and I’ve so celebrated that and I just think Rob’s book is in that genre. And for me is my book of the year really.
Alison Jones: It’s fascinating. I’m going to read the book because it sounds amazing and I don’t want to read the book. And what I notice in myself is a real resistance to… I don’t want to feel the pain that I know reading in this book is going to cause me. And that’s really interesting because I feel that, I think you are right, since having children, this has been a thing as well. I can’t bear to read anything in which a child gets hurt. And so I’m going to find this really, really hard.
And if you can move towards a disaster zone while it’s happening, I can read the damn book and I’m going to really challenge myself on that just because I feel that there is something unhelpful ultimately about trying to protect yourself from the bad feelings by not reading the difficult books, not watching the hard films, you know?
So that’s a real personal challenge to me, that actually maybe protecting yourself is not long term the best strategy for you as a reader.
Lucy Easthope: It’s a very interesting one because, and thank you so much for saying that, because that’s been an interesting response. Sometimes, people come up and tell me: I wasn’t going to buy your book. My friend bought it, I wasn’t going to buy your book because I didn’t think I could cope with it with the pandemic and everything. I wasn’t going to buy your book. And then I did.’
And that’s probably the most common interaction I have in the signing queue at literary festivals, is people saying, I kind of, you know, it took me a long time and other people have sent me messages. You know, good friends have said, oh, I’ve got your book, you know, I just wanted you to know I bought it but I can’t open it yet.
And I think we assume that there will be this kind of onslaught of horror and distress. And that’s really interested me because I would not firstly want to cause anybody any pain. And then also it’s a bit like, again with social media, people will say, oh, follow LucyGoBag because you might think it’s depressing and miserable, but actually she’s really useful and she’s just tweeted about making sure you’ve got contents insurance.
And I’m allowed, I think, on my thread to repost things about asteroids or dinosaurs or whatever, and people say it’s in her remit she’s got that disaster and risk thing going. But actually she’s also quite funny and she clearly loves Strictly Come Dancing and she’s very, you know, she’s just linked to a video of a lemur, so she’s quite, quite perky as well. Maybe there’s something a bit more to this book.
And I think that’s the thing, I laughed as much as I cried with Rob’s book. The other thing that happens, I think in a lot of Western civilizations, is we think if we read about it, we’ll rattle the fates. And one of the things that When The Dust Settles does, and Rob also makes his point very clearly in here is, hey, you know, these bad times are out there all the time. You aren’t rattling the fates, you aren’t bringing them any closer to your door. But maybe you will remember something that will make you in the darkest moments, the chapter on, he mentioned it several times, but there’s a particular discussion about keeping his relationship alive with his wife Leah, and being very tactile and making sure that they go out for a date and stuff. And so many bereaved parents have talked to me about that. And this goes right back to very, very early discussions, you can see it in disaster grief literature, many discussions of judgment. So for example, women who have children after an earlier children’s loss, you know, family members will say, well, how did you ever manage to sleep with your husband? You know, how did you do that? Because you must be just consumed with grief 24 7.
These kind of ideas that it’s okay, are hugely important, bereaved mothers who talk to me about the pressure to not be seen smiling or laughing or not to be seen, you know, you must sort of, we don’t wear black all the time and rend our clothes and do all those things, but you must appear in society to be sort of appropriately grieving.
So Rob’s still upstairs, but he is going on this shelf and this is just this year behind me is just books that have completely moved me this year. I’ve spent, I’m bankrupt. I’ve spent a fortune.
Alison Jones: Best way to go bankrupt though.
And I’m totally in favour by the way of the whole kind of reading, and indeed writing, being available on prescription. I think they’re some of the best things we can do for ourselves. And so cost effective.
Lucy, we are so over time that it’s just ridiculous and I don’t even care.
But thank you so much. It’s been just fascinating and I literally could have talked all day.
If people want to find out more about you, where should they go?
Lucy Easthope: Yes, so I’ve got a website and I’ve got my website, it’s got all my podcasts and my articles on, so that’s whatevernext.info. And for now, as long as these things exist please do follow me at @LucyGoBag. And I’ve got the paperbacks out in March and I’ve got hopefully a few literary festivals coming up so you can get to meet me in person as well.
Alison Jones: Which I thoroughly recommend as well. Thank you. Brilliant, it’s been amazing spending some time with you. Thanks.
Lucy Easthope: Thank you for having me.